The Rise and Fall of the River Dart

The surface of the river at the pool above the weir at Holne Bridge is glass smooth and a perfect mirror to the relentless grey clouds above.  However, refocussing my eyes from the superficial reflection down through the clear water I can see fine sand at my feet grading into pebbles and on to larger boulders out into the middle of the river until the river bed is lost in a aqua-green haze.  The water is very clear, possibly as clear as I have ever seen it.

A gust or air ruffles the surface breaking the mirror which is a good thing as I don’t need seven years of bad luck.  I press my toes into the softly yielding soil of the bank, lift my heels and spring into a dive.  I like to do neat dives which is not always so easy from an uneven vantage point but I feel this one is neat, the water cuts around me rather than there being any sensation of impact.  The water is bitterly cold and stings my eyes as I sweep over the river bed boulders into deeper water before getting forced up by the cold crushing my head.

‘Whoo hoo!’  I shake my head in a futile attempt to dislodge the stars that are spinning around inside. ‘F_, that’s cold.’  But not as cold as Wednesday.

Only last week I was quite contentedly dropping into the river above the bridge in only my swimwear and taking a leisurely 10 minute drift down to the weir without any sense of chill.  The water at a guess was 12degC or more, the temperature buoyed up by day after day of spring sunshine.  The sunshine has been a little less in evidence the last week or so and there was snow over the moor on Monday.  I anticipated the change in water temperature on Wednesday but even so and wearing a wetsuit when I got to the weir I had the shivers, the temperature was 5 or 6C at most.  Today the river is on the upward cycle again but still just sub-double figures at a guess.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The water level however is on the downward cycle, in free fall almost.  A month ago the whole of the weir was covered and the water swirled several inches deep over the lip  amongst the roots of the oak tree where my bag now rests high and dry.  Today that lip stands at least 10 inches high and dry.  That makes changing much easier as I can stand on the concrete and rinse the sand from between my toes.  By late summer the water will be confined to just the sluice and spillway but if the forecast is right that will have to wait a while as there is rain on the way.  It is unlikely to be as much as a few years ago when in the 2 weeks over Christmas 2013 the weather produced three of the highest river levels ever recorded on the Dart.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

 

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Foraging

I very rarely go for specific ‘wild food’ foraging moments these days.  I used to, armed of course with Food For Free (Richard Maybe) and Wild Food (Roger Phillips) back in the days before ‘A Cook on the Wild Side’ first saw the light of day on TV.  However, I came fairly rapidly to the conclusion that just because you can eat certain things it does not necessarily follow that you would want to.  To be honest hogweed shoots and alexanders are disgusting in my book, though there are people who savour them or at least claim to. I sometimes wonder however if that is more about lifestyle choice than having a genuine taste for them.  What’s the line from Crocodile Dundee?  “Well, you can live on it, but it taste like shit.”

I have however developed my own road map to wild food (well there have been several as I have moved about) plotting both location and season.  I the right season I divert my swimming to places where on the way to and fro I stand a chance of a handful of hedgehog mushrooms (my absolute favourite), oyster mushrooms (I know of some growing tantalisingly out of reach right now) or penny buns.   The first time I came home with those I made a pasta, paprika and mushroom dish which everyone enjoyed very much, only later did we discover we’d eaten £80 of mushrooms and that figure has probably doubled today.  And therein lies a problem.

Anything ‘wild’ is trendy.  Wild swimming, wild camping, wild food.  Organised foraging trips are run and there are commercial foragers supplying gourmet restaurants where the patrons have only ever seen a blade of grass where it has thrust up through a crack in the pavement.  Not all foragers are irresponsible but it only takes one or two and I know sea samphire beds that were free to all not so long ago but which are now deserts that do not sprout the next year.

It seems counter intuitive that something so prolific could be wiped out but this is not new.  The North American Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird on the continent and flocks contained birds in their millions.  Yet the last bird died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, they had been hunted to extinction.  And this induces a trickle down mentality; ‘if a commercial forager is going to come along and grab everything then I may as well grab everything first’.  I have seen individuals carrying bags loaded to bursting with mushrooms leaving a wasteland in their wake.  After all, where is the sense in leaving the little ones to grow bigger when someone else will simply strip them, you may as well have them yourself.

Fortunately though in this country most people are still sure every mushroom is poisonous so that cuts down the competition and a lot of people are put off by the look of some things or the need to go to quite out of the way places.  And of course some things are still in profusion it would be hard to imagine no more nettles or garlic.

It is amazing though what you can find and also what you might find.  The 4lb lobster lumbering across the rocks was quick but not quick enough when facing someone who had never eaten lobster, though it was actually a close thing.

Today though on this very low tide it is possible to walk out to the kelp beds, always a nice addition to a stir fry and some of the garlic flower buds I picked at the river yesterday will give it a certain piquant boost.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Red Lake is far Away

It is 3 miles as near, or far, as makes no difference from the car parking place at Lud Gate to Red Lake.  Not so far until you factor in the three hillsides to climb and the rough nature of the ground underfoot.  There was a time I could run it non-stop, not any more.  I shall instead use ‘stopping to take a photo’ as a feeble excuse for ‘I’m going to die’.

The open moor is only just waking up to spring.  A few bluebells are showing in the hedges at Lud Gate whereas in the woods near home they form a blue carpet and have done so for a week or more.  Down at Holne Bridge the first hawthorn (may) flower was out two weeks ago but as I pass the last hawthorn on the edge of the open moor it is only showing its first green leaf tips.  The grass underfoot has gone past brown and dessicated and is now bleached and crumbling and the ground is parched and dry, well dry in a Dartmoor sense, in other words I have not yet gone knee deep in peaty mud in the first 100m of open moorland.

Along the way I make a little diversion to the top of Puper’s Hill to take in the view, then down to Huntingdon Warren where the daffodils are still in bloom and up to the Mound of Sinners, on to Broad Falls and thence Red Lake.

It was going so well, but there is no approach to Red Lake from this side that does not involve a long diversion or wet feet.  I have wet feet.  So close.  I have also stumbled upon the dead sheep which had alerted me to its presence 100 yards away.

The lake is a disused china clay pit which by all accounts never made any money.  I am not surprised.  The cost of the tramway alone, which snakes down the moor 6 miles to Harford nearly on the level and then steeply down to Ivybridge must have been exorbitant.  However, what I imagine most people don’t see is the line of the porcelain pipe down which the china clay slurry was sent.  It is clear to see in some places such as where it crosses a small tin streaming works on an aqueduct but for most of the rest of the way it is simply marked by a run of standing stones.  It too must have cost a fortune.

It is widely held that the lake is contaminated with arsenic which was extensively mined in Devon and Cornwall during the early part of the 20th century.   The water however is alive with fish and tadpoles and they live and drink it all day long and it doesn’t seem be doing them much harm, but it is probably as well not to drink the water.  That probably equally goes for any river downstream of a town where the pollution from vehicle exhausts lies in the gutters until being swept into the river by rain. Right about now after weeks with no rain that will make the lower stretches of the River Dart fairly nasty when the rain finally comes.

The water is chilly but not cold.  I enter form the west side under the bank which cuts out the chill breeze, but here the bottom is marshy rather than sandy and bubbles of gas burst foetidly as I wade in.  It is about 400m around the edge if you swim close in to the shore, but today I content myself with heading out into the middle kicking and splashing at the tea stained water, it never really clears, February or July, always dark and peaty.

There is something about the emptiness of this place that would perhaps not be to everyone’s liking.  There is the hurried lap, lap, lap of wavelets driven by the breeze against the stones, the sound carries around the sunken bowl like a faltering heartbeat and the breeze soughs through the grass in a final death rattle.  Floating out here in the middle of this forsaken lake is either like dying or being born, for is it not written “All things come to those who wait.”*

Suddenly the sky is full of swallows, sweeping, ducking and weaving and there is that heartbeat again.

I could head back the way I came or I could follow the tram way to where it is crossed by the Abbot’s Way, then down to the clapper bridge and around the hill and back.  However, from the top of the volcano I have a clear view of Ryder’s Hill a mile and a half away over fairly level moorland and once there I can take the ridge back to Snowdon and skirt Pupers Hill to get back.  It is a long way but it is ‘level’ or at least mostly in my favour.

Downhill it may be but I am very glad to see the car again and I am splattered with mud once again.  There is nothing for it, I will have to stop at Holne Weir on the way home.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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*The Way of Mrs Cosmopilite, 3 Quirm Street ,  Ankh Morpork.

The Greening of the River

I have no explanation for the phenomenon that affects the rivers and streams of Dartmoor in the early spring.  They turn green.  Bright zesty lime green.

All through the summer the waters are loaded with peat which turns them in extreme cases the same general tone as over stewed tea.  The tint is carried down the Dart, as far as its meeting with the sea at Totnes Weir.  All the growth and activity in the bogs presumably stirs the peat up and the reduced rainfall concentrates the effect, that seems fairly straight-forward.

In late autumn the rainfall picks up, the rivers run in torrents and the waters turn alternately grey-brown with stirred up sand, mud or mashed plants and leaves, or quite clear and colourless during the rare lulls in the rain.  That too is as expected, water does not have a natural colour or tint.

Then in spring the waters turn lime green.  Bright zesty lime green.

Why? is a good question well presented.  I’m open to suggestions.

It is still fairly cold and life in the peat is only just getting going after winter and maybe the winter rains have flushed out the peaty colour and that might explain why the water is tint free in February.  But what happens in mid-March to turn the water green through April and on to early May when the tea returns again?

If it was an algal growth then you might expect visibility to reduce, but it doesn’t ‘clear and green’ would be the best description, the clearest the water will be all year.

Dissolved minerals?  Some lakes appear blue because of clay flakes suspended in the water.  But what is special about spring that minerals would specially dissolve in the water?  Surely that’s going to happen all year.  Perhaps the acidity of the water changes, though why?

Perhaps most obviously it could be something to do with the plants but it happens up on the open moor above the ‘tree line’ so it’s mosses or grass or ferns, but why any of those emerging from winter would turn the water green is a mystery.

I’ve thought about it and thought about it and I still have no clue.  Answers please?

“Swimming is Like a Box of Chocolates …

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

On a scale of normal to utterly bizarre I think I’ve seen some ‘odd’ things whilst on my swimming travels.  A few years ago it was a basking shark, not unusual except that it was only 50m off the shore and in the middle of January, that is odd I assure you.  Not however as odd as a year or two later when I saw one in Churston Cove.  It was blowing a mental easterly wind which really throws the sea into a hoolie in Torbay and this shark was, I am convinced, sheltering in the little bay riding it out in barely 3m of water.  I watched it (from the shore) for 5 minutes and then it was gone.

Seals (been there done that, got the photos of the bites to prove it), salmon and sea trout and of course kingfishers, both on the river and at the beach and I have watched one hover like a humming bird.

Otters on the other hand are elusive little devils!  If you walk the river bank after a flood you will see their footprints in the freshly smoothed sand and you’ll find their droppings and sometimes a partly flayed fish, but only once before have I seen one (an ornithologist friend told me kingfishers don’t hover, I told him that clearly no-one had explained that to the bird in question).

Then I was swimming the River Dart behind Buckfast Abbey one day as part of my sources to sea swim.  It’s a secluded spot and a brilliant swoosh but the old weir washed away some years ago and the river bed is littered with blocks of concrete with iron reinforcing bars poking out.  I found out the hard way and the blood was everywhere!  I probably should have gone and got it stitched up but I’ll live.  Consequently I was understandably not feeling so happy about my enterprise.  I’d seen otter footprints earlier and was passing a bit of bank with willows growing over a sandy ‘beach’ and just for a moment caught a glimpse of that arched back otter shape.  I checked the sand and there were fresh prints which wound on for some distance but clearly the otter was well away from me.

Today the evening turned out far better than the forecast had suggested.  They’d got it right that the wind would drop to nothing, but far from being overcast it was blue sky and sunshine from here to there.  After my run I nearly, nearly went back to Holne Bridge to see the emerging bluebells but instead headed back the way I’d just come to swim Black Rock.

The water in the river has gone ‘crystal’ clear and the lime green zesty colour is back, I had thought the moment had been missed but the water level is dropping daily with this dry weather.  A shame though that the water has seemingly taken a turn for the chillier again.

After swimming I sat on the rock drying my hair, watching the water sparkle in the sunshine which needled through the trees on the far bank.  The otter came from nowhere, one moment no otter, next a sleek dark brown shape trotting along the corresponding ridge of rock on the far bank where it juts into the water.  It simply ‘rolled’ into the water just above the little cascade and was gone.

Needless to say I sat very still and watched but to no avail, but it just goes to show, you never know what you’re going to get”.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

I Don’t Believe It!

People I know have started calling me Victor, a reference that will not be lost on anyone who ever watched the BBC sitcom ‘One Foot in the Grave’.

But really, I don’t believe it!

A week ago the river bank was almost pristine and litter free.  However, the school holidays are upon us and there have been successive days of spring sunshine and the undergrowth is blooming litter like damp forgotten swimwear in a plastic bag sprouts mould.  But this is to litter and beyond!

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I passed the car parked in the designated turning space (selfish enough) along the narrow twisting lane on my way to the river.  And again on the way back.  A few minutes later and I’m driving down the lane heading for home and the car is just backing out into the road.  I pause and let them get underway.  And there, propped against the bushes is a metal framed, fluorescent pink canvassed folding chair.  The canvas hangs ragged and torn.  Those bastards have just carried it back from the river bank and rather than take it home in their car they have dumped it.

Why?  Why do people do it?  They carry full picnic baskets to the river bank and afterwards load up with the empty cans, bottles, plastic wrappers and then leave it the car park when presumably there is still room for it in the car it came out of in the first place.

Anyway, it’s now in my shed on its way to being recycled.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

After the Crowds

When I am used to being on the river bank by myself even a couple of extra people constitutes a crowd.  Generally that’s not a problem, I don’t have the monopoly on solitude or peace and quiet for that matter and what’s not to like about the sound of people enjoying themselves.  Up to a point.

There are 6 or so late ‘teens’ or early ‘twentysomethings’ on the river bank and a couple of the lads are hurling fist sized stones into the water.  I have inhabited that particular glass house so I’m not saying anything, but on this otherwise perfectly still evening in the warm golden rays of the setting sun it is a major assault on the senses.

From where I stop further up the river bank to change I can here them calling and yelling out of sight through the trees but there is still the occasional sploosh of a falling stone out in the middle of the pool.  There is a ceasefire in their barrage as I swim down and back but behind me again I here another sploosh, that hollow sucking sound of a stone falling into shallow water.

Their intrusion fades as I get changed, the sun has gone behind the trees and so have they, silence falls and the surface of the pool settles back to its natural calm state.

I’m sitting on the bank absently contemplating the ripples on the water.  In a fast flowing current it always surprises me that ripples pushed ahead of me as I swim upstream aren’t carried downstream by the flow of water.  Afterall, like leaves or twigs that is what you would expect isn’t it?  Instead however I have often noted how the ripples move against the flow of water as if the water were in fact completely still.  But more than that, ripples in still water spread out leaving a still centre, whereas ripples in moving water seem to propagate almost indefinitely raising static waves in the flow.  I have been watching these ripples for as long as it has taken me to dry and dress and they are still there trapped in the flow of the water, their undulations marked by flickers of reflection.  They will fade eventually, that must be the case because they were not there when I dove in earlier.

Perpetual motion is a myth, it is contrary to all the laws of thermodynamics including the first law of thermodynamics club which is, don’t talk about thermodynamics.  So the ripples must be drawing energy from somewhere and that can really only be from the flow of the river.  That being the case I speculate on whether there is a relationship between the frequency and/or amplitude of the ripples and the rate of flow of the water.  This must  be the case because the ripples I made swimming and getting out must have been many and chaotic, yet they have now settled into a very uniform pattern.

I’m yanked back to the ‘real world’ when a pale brown autumn leaf tumbles over my towel just within arm’s reach.  Except that there is no breeze and for a leaf to be moving that fast there would have to be a hurricane blowing.  Gently tilting my head down I can peer beneath the overhang of the bank and there not 3 feet away a pair of beady black eyes flank an urgently twitching nose which waggles its whiskers at me.  The mouse and I hold eye contact for a moment and then it flicks away like a randomly bouncing ball ricocheting off stones and tree roots.  It’s not just me that likes it when it’s more solitudinous.

Walking back past the scene of the youthful gathering I pause and collect up the cans and other litter.  Now that really pisses me off and I bet more ended up in the river.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall